One of my favorite old tools to fix up and use are small patternmaker’s router planes. Each one of these little tools is unique, usually inexpensive and easy to get functioning.
They also can be gorgeous examples of craftsmanship, or as ugly as an Allan wrench jammed into a plate of rusted steel.
The tools are fairly common because they were made by pattermakers for their own use, according to tool collectors I’ve talked to. Sometimes the patternmaker would use a common Stanley tool as the pattern for the craftsman-made tool. And that’s why you sometimes see router planes that look like slightly shrunken Stanley router planes in bronze.
The coolest one I’ve ever seen is owned by Carl Bilderback, a retired carpenter and tool collector who lives outside Chicago. He writes for Popular Woodworking on occasion and whenever I’m up there to take photos of his work I always catch myself looking at his router plane with lustful thoughts.
It’s fancy. It has a bronze base, a beautifully knurled adjustment mechanism and tiny little turned handles. You’ll be able to see a photo of it in our February 2008 issue. Carl is using it during an article on repairing mistakes.
The router shown here is a more typical example. I bought it for $15 at a tool swap. It was sitting on a blanket with a bunch of other little bits of rusted metal.
Fixing one up is easy. I started working on this one at 4:10 p.m. and was trimming tenons before 4:30 p.m. rolled around. The irons on these are almost always soft steel, which means they are easy to hone up, but that you’ll be sharpening them often.
I polished the flat face of the tool on my waterstones during two songs on the radio (man how I love Little Steven’s Underground Garage). Then I trued up the bevel on a diamond stone and honed a micro-bevel on the waterstones. You can’t use honing guides to sharpen the L-shaped iron, but it’s easy work by hand.
The only other thing to do is to clean up the sole a bit. The oxidation on the broze base will leave nasty marks on your work at first. I clean up the base on some sandpaper stuck to a piece of granite.
If you’d like one of these tools for yourself, the best way is to join Mid-West Tool Collector’s Association and attend one of their local or national meets. You will have 20 or 30 to choose from. I’ve found a few on eBay using this search, but I like buying them in person because you can make sure that the iron can be tightened up well. There’s nothing worse than an iron that shifts around in use.
— Christopher Schwarz